My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
On a wintry day in 2012, at the start of a yearlong fellowship with the International Contemporary Ensemble, the composer and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey sat down in a studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center with me and eight other members of the ensemble to talk about what he wanted to do with our mixed group of brass, winds, strings, percussion, and piano. “I’m not interested in writing a piece that melds improvisational and notational practices,” he said. “Nor one that references jazz or contemporary or classical music as we know it. I want to make music with you guys from a place where all of those lines have already disappeared. You down?”
That statement was equal parts invitation, provocation, and expression of profound trust. And the generosity and precision of his question left no alternative other than to leap in and join him. We’ve held tightly to each other ever since, collaborating in and outside of the ensemble, for which Tyshawn has most recently written the music for Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine (2016), an extended song cycle responding to the lyrics and legacy of Josephine Baker. This past March, Tyshawn put together a wide-ranging program of his new and recent work, as the subject of Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series at Columbia University.
Because we weren’t going to find ourselves in the same city again for some time, we had this chat over Skype in April. I was in a hotel room in Baltimore and he was in his studio at Wesleyan University. Being onstage with Tyshawn is like being onstage with the ocean—it’s gorgeous, dangerous, and miraculous. Being in conversation with him is similarly alive and adventurous. You down?
Claire Chase Last week you were in DC for a gig at the Kennedy Center. What else is happening in your world?
Tyshawn Sorey Well, after that I had an amazing duo concert in Brooklyn with the saxophonist and composer Chris Pitsiokos, who works with me up here at Wesleyan. But I’ve got to say that show at Miller last week was quite a watershed moment for me. It was the first time I’ve gotten to do a full-length program of my concert music.
CC We don’t always have the luxury of looking back, partly due to the practice itself. Fred Moten would call it the “practice of resistance,” and that’s central to the way you and other boundary-eroding artists are compelled to metabolize your experiences and sounds and stories on stage. But, man, there you were, after years of having to fight for the name composer, reflecting on a body of work that would be substantial for someone twice your age.
TS I was beyond honored. And what better collaborators to include than the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet—people whom I’ve had a rapport with for the last ten years or so. I felt super nervous the entire week leading up to the performance, and on the day of the concert I came out of dress rehearsal exhausted. I’m not even performing in most of the pieces, so I can’t imagine how you all must have felt.
CC It was intense. I’ll give you that.
TS I was like, We gotta do this again tonight? Every time we get together, whether we’re rehearsing or performing, to me, it’s the same in terms of how much we give to the music and how committed we are to making something magical happen when we touch the instrument. We may try to save our bodies during rehearsal so we don’t burn out, but I still feel that sense of belief in the work and really giving our all. So along with the nervousness, I also felt extremely happy, like we were all a family in this cathartic experience together—I live for those moments.
CC The program was dizzyingly wide-ranging—aesthetically, stylistically, formally. What considerations went into shaping the show?
TS In selecting the pieces, I didn’t want to do a typical New Music concert retrospective. I wanted to simply offer a spectrum of my work, which is a reflection of my listening experiences. Growing up, I listened to whatever I wanted to, and I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about it. I would just try to locate connections between different styles, genres, and ways of playing. To me it was all music; I didn’t grow up thinking about genre, so there was really no distinction. The program aimed to give a clear sense of where I’m headed in a variety of mediums, with small as well as large instrumentations—such as with Autoschediasms (2019), which we spent a long time getting together. The night of the concert I decided to stretch that piece a bit because I felt we were in such a great place with it. I wanted to keep it going. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but I’m more into the bigger picture than some formalized way of going about things. In fact, originally I had this grand idea where both the JACK Quartet and the International Contemporary Ensemble would operate in tandem with one another, simultaneously using written and graphical instructions. As you know from the rehearsal, that didn’t happen. (laughter) After playing with many ideas, I just said, “What the hell, let’s just do it this other way, where everyone is involved in the language.” My hero Morton Feldman once said, “The composer makes plans. Music laughs!” Y’all sure were laughing at me that day!
CC What about the decision to move continuously from one piece to the next?
TS That was an extension of a practice in my trio with Cory Smythe and Chris Tordini, where there’s no longer any concern for playing individual pieces. I don’t have this smiley-face stage presence where I’m like, “Hey, how y’all feeling?” That’s not me. I usually don’t talk at all during my concerts. I don’t like to break the flow of things. Doing three pieces seamlessly in the first half and then three in the second half was a compositional decision—but if it were up to me, there wouldn’t even be a break in the program.
CC One of the most recent works, Everything Changes, Nothing Changes (2018) for string quartet, is this slow unfurling of hushed intensity over twenty minutes. And it began, as I understand it, with a very specific process of generating notes and durations inspired by the structure of sudoku puzzles, as well as by a retreat at Robert Rauschenberg’s former studio on Captiva Island in Florida. But when you heard the piece at the JACK Quartet’s first rehearsal at BAM, you changed a bunch of things, and then the piece doubled in length. What happened at that first listen? And how has the piece continued to evolve in subsequent performances, including the one last week?
TS At that first rehearsal the quartet played beautifully, but the tempo was much too fast and the performance seemed overly concerned with the mathematical nature of how the durations worked. From the composer’s point of view, the concept was evident in terms of how the music is split into these sixteen different rhythmic units that are always evolving and permutating. But I didn’t want it to just do that. I wanted to break this pattern a bit. And I went about that through additions, subtle elaborations of existing material. So the piece doubled. There were also sections that I wanted more of, so at the Miller rendition, I had them repeat an elongated section to get us into the music’s overarching ethos. The opening of the piece is similar to another I wrote for a saxophone quartet, Nebulae (2018), which has this repetitive yet nonrepetitive character. With Nebulae and Everything Changes, it’s about establishing a different way of listening. I want to open the door to this other sound world we’re about to get into, and from there slowly evolve out from this repetitive space into one that goes its own way. It’s not a traditional string quartet by any means. The thing that doesn’t change is how all four instruments are, for the most part, playing these sounds together as one organism and with imperfect entrances and exits; there’s never a featured spot for anyone. It’s more about the orchestration and how the quartet moves together than about the instruments themselves.
CC Hearing you describe all of this, I’m struck by how the compositional material—meaning the stuff on the page, of course, but also the memories in musicians’ bodies after having practiced a passage many times in a particular way—is always generative for you, and you insist on it being generative for your collaborators, whether they identify as improvisers or not. Last week, for example, you had JACK add a bunch more repeats and constructed a new opening for the piece right before the show. How do you navigate the space between your plan—in this piece, an intentionally restrictive mathematical process—and your intuition, when you’re in the moment?
TS I don’t like to hear things one way all the time. There’s no definitive version of a piece. I try to let it live its own life, whether that be through expansion or contraction. When I listened to the recording of the premiere performance that JACK played at the Banff Centre, I wanted to better define what I’m trying to achieve. It’s not to say what I did before wasn’t any good, but there’s always going to be reflective analysis, which assists in how I proceed to change things compositionally or from an interpretive standpoint. The composition alteration is, for me, perhaps the most immediate way to arrive at that experience—but it’s not the only way. In the end, I want the piece to grow, just like I’m trying to grow. Coming out of improvisation, I know that by virtue of everybody bringing their own life experience into performing the music, the way I hear it is going to change anyway. It might not even be a forced change; it could be something with our bodies or the way we look at the material. We all change over time, and so do our ears.
CC And considered that way, the evolution of an interpretation is also a form of improvisation. I know you tire quickly of people’s ham-fisted attempts to differentiate between improvisation and composition, so I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, but I want to pose our beloved Pauline Oliveros’s crack at a definition. She said, “Improvisation is making music instantaneously without planning. Composition is constructing music. In improvisation, you can’t change your mind. In composition you can.”
TS I think there’s truth to that—but those are smaller distinctions, beyond what most would think of as composition and improvisation, not only from a place of methodology but also from a place of value. People, including some performers and composers, tend to not value improvisation as much as composition. They see it as this other thing, where what’s going on is random and thoughtless. This comes from a somewhat old-school, technocratic sense of how one thinks about the construction of music or production of sound.
CC And Eurocentric.
TS Very Eurocentric. I think what Pauline is talking about is valid. But I tend to look at improvisation as an evolutionary process, in the same way that I look at composition. It’s spontaneous composition, which is why sometimes I even shudder at the term improvisation when discussing my music. But sparing the semantics, whenever I’m composing spontaneously, whether the material moves slow or quick, I try to take my time. I am crafting something unique that will likely never happen again. It’s like playing chess—and I’m a huge fan of chess. When I’m in the middle of a move, I’m already planning ten, twenty moves ahead. (laughter) I’m not merely going from one move to the next. It’s more about where I want the entire composition to go. Or should it to go nowhere? For me, that’s also valid.
CC One of the things I want to get into is the difference between hybridity—which has become a bit of a lazy term, perhaps insufficient to describe the nomadic, evolutionary process that’s the central tenet of your practice—and what you call mobility. What does mobility mean to you musically and politically?
TS For me, mobility represents not adhering to any particular musical model or institution. Unlike hybridity, mobility isn’t about fusion so much as the freedom to move between different models from moment to moment. Part of it came about through the identity crisis I had as a composer when I first got to Columbia as a PhD student in 2011. I thought, I’m not as good as these other composers here; I’m kind of a failure. I was saying all of this ridiculous stuff to myself, talking about how maybe I should just be a jazz musician from now on and give up on composing. I was always putting myself in a very insecure position. And so my teachers George Lewis and Fred Lerdahl told me, “You can’t be concerned with what everybody else is doing. Why are you trying to fight? Get to know their music and what they’re doing. But embrace yourself and where you come from.” That’s when this feeling of being mobile intensified. They were telling me to stop being dishonest with myself and that it was okay to pursue everything that’s a part of my musical makeup and integrate it into the music I’m writing to give it some coherency with what my model is proposing. To not necessarily copy my influences, but to be in dialogue with them. I decided that my thoroughly composed music should maintain the same level of thought and clarity put into my spontaneous music. I had to really define my creative terms, not just in academic writing, but in my own music. And I frankly got sick and tired of trying to appease certain people and critics. I no longer cared about trying to belong anywhere. It was time to truly embrace myself and where I came from musically.
I developed more confidence through some great opportunities, such as the Josephine Baker project, where I was basically given free rein to be myself. Rehearsing Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine presented an eye-opening opportunity to renew my understanding of collaboration with people who come from very different backgrounds and to not feel handcuffed by my influences. In the talkback at Miller Theatre, I said, “Be your own prototype.” I used to try to talk about my work in this super intellectual way, whereas now I can speak more clearly. It’s been a deep restoration of my inner self and the development of my musical vocabulary.
CC And how does mobility show up in Autoschediasms?
TS Working with composer Butch Morris taught me this idea of mobility. I’ve performed under his baton for a number of years. I developed another kind of confidence in creating my Autoschediasms language, which is derived from Butch’s “Conduction” vocabulary. Autoschediasms is similar in that it employs a lexicon of gestures and visual cues for a musician or group of musicians to perform specific actions when indicated by the conductor. There are also autonomous cues, textual and graphic instructions indicating specific playing techniques or events, as well as instructions that are relational to any member of the ensemble, indicated by the simultaneous use of a whiteboard and visual gestures. In real time, the musicians create the content, and I create the form or structure.
I remember a time in Italy, maybe 2003 or so, when Butch gathered a lot of traditional musicians from Africa and Southeast Asia all within the same ensemble as improvisers from New York. The people playing these traditional instruments had never really improvised, but suddenly we found ourselves making some extraordinary music together, all in the moment. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before, where you can create something that’s so meaningful with anybody at a moment’s notice. It taught me that you don’t have to have a background in improvisation to successfully make a piece of music with other musicians who are improvisers. All you have to do is listen, be open to what’s going on, and be prepared to be uncomfortable. If you’re okay with taking the chance to step outside of yourself and listen, then you will fit right in. This is a music that’s not simply about doing what a conductor tells you to do. You’re now in dialogue not only with the conductor, but also your fellow musicians.
Last year the flutist Jaena Kim and I spent a lot of time together at Banff. And one night, it was just me, her, and two grand pianos in the room, and we’re having a long heart-to-heart chat when suddenly I wanted to play music together. She said, “I’ve dabbled in improvisation, but I’m not really good at it. And I would be embarrassed to do it in front of you because you have all this experience.” After about five minutes of my insisting and trying to convince her to play solo, we finally negotiated a space in which I would improvise with her on the second piano. We were creating this sort of fugal thing together. She’s such an amazing listener. And when we finished, she burst into tears. She was overjoyed, and simultaneously in disbelief, that she was suddenly able to connect in that way. These connections on a human level are so important to restoring one’s confidence in being able to spontaneously compose music with almost anybody, which further speaks to the idea of what mobility can do for a person.
CC Mobility is our natural human impulse. We arrive into this world screaming, writhing, trying to perform acts that our tiny bodies can’t manage yet but are already embodying.
TS We can’t forget that.
CC One of the through lines of your show was the homage that you pay to your mentors in each gesture of the program. Has this always been a part of your process?
TS I’ve always believed that you should never forget a bridge that carried you to the next place. So a lot of my titles, for example, are dedications to people who’ve had a significant impact on my life. I feel the world needs to become aware of them and the exemplary work they’ve done.
CC Let’s talk about the upcoming performance of your tribute to Josephine Baker, Perle Noire, as part of Harvard University’s Fromm Foundation concerts. For those who may not be familiar with the project, conceived by Peter Sellars, you’ve created five re-compositions and one head arrangement of Baker’s songs for a mixed ensemble of improvisers, with you on percussion and piano. It reimagines and in a sense reclaims the story of Baker, with spoken monologues written by Claudia Rankine and performed by the soprano Julia Bullock. The piece deconstructs the notion that Baker was primarily a black entertainer. Formally and musically, you set up a situation that effectively kills the white gaze and forces Baker’s story to be told in all of its complexity. Considering everything we’ve talked about over the last hour—the evolution of an interpretation and the thin membrane between interpretation and improvisation—how are you seeing this next iteration?
TS Living inside that piece for the last three years has been great. For each iteration, Julia and I meet before we rehearse to talk about what could be edited out or added. I’m always thinking of new things, even as we’re playing. There’s a three-dimensionality to how it works. First, everybody plays using the same written score. And second, within that score, you have directives for improvisation, with the option of playing some additional written material or interpreting existing material how you want. And then the third part is we don’t know what will happen—part of this can come from my not playing or reading any score materials. I’ve played entire concerts where I didn’t use the score at all or play anything written down. Or if I did, I didn’t feel like I had to only play a given passage one way. I intentionally change it up each time, without anyone knowing in advance. The music is at once very rigorous, detailed, risky, unknowing, and immediate. You always have to be on your toes, even if you have a score in front of you. Going into this next performance, it will only continue to evolve. I dig it because I can sit with Rankine’s texts and that affects how we decide to play the music. Every time Julia makes a cut or some drastic change in her interpretation of the vocal lines. Even the way that she recites texts can influence the direction of the music because she’s that powerful of a musician. I once said to her, “You know, this is a very dangerous group of collaborators.” We’re always walking on a tightrope.
CC As I recall, Peter initially conceived of this song cycle as a personal portrait of Baker, one that would delve into the inner turmoil of her heart. But once you and the team got into researching her life and living inside of these songs, it became less about painting a portrait and more about deconstructing a myth. Can you talk about that evolution, and how it’s reflected in the music?
TS Well, Julia and I both agreed after the premiere at Ojai Festival that the piece was not necessarily about Baker but for her. We never thought of it as simply a portrait, where it would be like a greatest-hits concert with spoken word. That would have been a cop-out. Baker, to us, was more than just an amazing entertainer who could do all of these extraordinary things. We can’t forget she was also a vulnerable human being who dealt with struggles of identity, gender marginalization, authenticity, racial discrimination, prejudice, and other personal strife. My mission was to offer these songs in a way that strayed very far from the original recordings. They’re barely recognizable. I wanted to reveal the side of Baker reflected in the lyrical content of the songs she sang. With Perle Noire, you’re not getting some nice little upbeat tunes, corny arrangements, and lush harmonies that serve as background to these incredible, poignant lyrics. The music I wrote supports the lyrics and the lyrics support the music, if that makes sense.
CC She’s celebrated in this cycle in her multidimensionality as a singer, artist, and activist, and in a way that should not be seen as radical—because it’s 2019, people—yet it is. In fact, at the premiere at Ojai Festival in 2016, where we played it for an overwhelmingly white audience, the critical response was so reactionary that you and also Julia ended up in social-media wars for months afterward.
TS Yeah. If people thought that performance was radical…Well, if they only knew what we later did at the Met! They would have been walking out. But outside of all of the angst, there’s still a lightheartedness and playfulness to some of the music, like the dance tunes that close out the first half.
To a lot of these critics, the music simply wasn’t black enough and lacked cultural authenticity. They were for the most part completely ignorant of the influences that were a huge part of the music’s conception from a technical and historical point of view: the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] and black collectivist creative practice. My work has nothing to do with being “authentically black.” These folks’ perception of it perpetuates a simplistic racial game and the idea that as a black composer I must stay in my lane, whatever that means. Furthermore, it’s difficult for me to fathom the idea that anything dealing with a historical subject has to be completely mimetic and reductionist.
CC Who are any of us to arbitrate a definition of cultural authenticity?
TS And I’ve never been considered culturally authentic, even by my own people. Is my music black? Is it white? I’ve always struggled with these sorts of definitions. It brings me back to what Anthony Braxton had to deal with, and how he has persevered through it all, even though he still gets these same criticisms now at seventy-three years old. It’s preposterous to see in 2019 these same accusations of inauthenticity against black composers who are trying to do meaningful work.
CC Well, I think the best antidote to that might be the last line of George Lewis’s opera Afterword: “Stop trying to be like others. Follow the thought of who we are. We’re still a part of the power that’s stronger than itself forever.”
TS Forever and ever. There’s so much more to do. We’re never done. Like I always say, “We’re going to do this till we’re gray.” I want to keep learning.
CC I’m going to be playing Bertha’s Lair with you until my teeth fall out. In my nineties, I’m still going to be trying to keep up with you in the last section.
Claire Chase is a flutist, curator, and advocate for new and experimental music. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012, and in 2017 was the first flutist to be awarded the Avery Fisher Prize from Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Chase founded the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2001, served as its artistic director until 2016, and is currently on the Board of Directors. She is a Professor of the Practice of Music at Harvard University.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.